If you’re planning a trip to Hawai’i and don’t want to rent a car, O’ahu is the island to visit.
O’ahu is home to TheBus, the public transit system of the City and County of Honolulu, and it has routes that run all around the island. While you can’t reach every point of interest on public transit, you can travel long distances if you have plenty of time and patience. If you plan to use transit frequently (at least three trips per day), it’s worthwhile investing in the four-day pass, which costs $25 and and is valid for four consecutive days of unlimited bus rides on all regular and commuter express services. One-way cash fares for adults are $2.50.
For our trip, we relied on the O’ahu Revealed guidebook app, which advises that not renting a vehicle for at least part of your stay on O’ahu is a “big mistake.” We disagree, but we we will admit that we found car-free travel on O’ahu more frustrating than we anticipated due to crowded buses, infrequent service on some bus routes, and Honolulu’s merely average walkability.
Normally when we travel without a car, it’s easy to be oblivious to traffic congestion, but throughout O’ahu it was impossible to ignore. The TomTom Congestion Index ranks Honolulu as the third-worst city for traffic congestion in North America, after Los Angeles and Vancouver respectively. We first witnessed heavy traffic in Waikiki, an area of Honolulu that is only two miles long and over a half mile wide. The number of vehicles and pedestrians navigating around Waikiki is often astounding. Beyond Waikiki, we experienced traffic congestion on our day trip to and around the North Shore. The journey north took us along the H-1 Freeway, where we witnessed the Zip Mobile shifting a lane of traffic.
Once we reached the North Shore, traffic was often bumper-to-bumper on the scenic routes. It’s no wonder that some locals desperately want rail service on O’ahu.
Generally, we found TheBus useful for getting around Honolulu and we travelled on it to reach places like Bishop Museum and the trailhead for the easy Manoa Falls hike. If you plan to travel quite a bit on TheBus, I highly recommend that you look up bus schedules in advance if you will take TheBus to places where service is infrequent. We made the mistake of not doing this when we went to Manoa Falls and we found ourselves waiting nearly an hour at the bus stop after completing our hike.
Shuttles and bus tours can make car-free travel on O’ahu a little easier. We took V.I.P. Trans Hawaii shuttles between the airport and Waikiki and to travel from Waikiki to Pearl Harbor (we returned from Pearl Harbor by TheBus).
There is no shortage of bus tour options on O’ahu. To visit the North Shore, we decided to go on the 7-hour Waimea Waterfall and Circle Island Adventure tour by Oahu Nature Tours. There were a handful of shopping stops on the tour, but our guide ensured that we spent most of our time focusing on nature at places like Waimea Falls and the Banzai Pipeline.
We didn’t ride bicycles on this trip, so I can’t share any meaningful information about the cycling experience or infrastructure on O’ahu. We were surprised, however, to see so few people riding bicycles in Honolulu given the near-perfect weather for this mode of transportation. We were pleased to occasionally spot some very creative carriers for surfboards on bicycles, and we also liked some of the bicycle racks around Honolulu.
One thing I can’t neglect to highlight about O’ahu is the quality of the farmers’ markets! We went to the Kapi’olani Community College Farmers’ Market (Saturdays, 7:30-11:00 a.m.) and the Honolulu Farmers’ Market on Ward Avenue (Wednesdays, 4:00-7:00 p.m.) and both were excellent.
Plan to buy fruit and arrive hungry so that you can eat a meal at one of the stalls serving prepared food. We particularly liked the vegetarian curry at The Pig and the Lady, which was full of vegetables from farmers’ market vendors. When we visited the farmers’ markets in early April, we left with apple bananas, pineapple, mangoes, loquats, star apples, cherimoya, and papaya. The OnoPops popsicles, which we found at both markets and even in a few Honolulu shops, are delicious and not to be missed. Our favourite flavours were Guava Tamarind, Kona Latte and Lilikoi Cheesecake.